Chrétien on a fine line

Canada’s trade with China has never been bigger, and it’s never grown faster. According to the latest statistics, we now exchange $53 billion in goods and services with them each year, making China our second-largest trading partner after the United States.

If an oil pipeline were ever built from Alberta to the west coast, you could tack on an extra $10 or $20 billion a year to those numbers — and scare any protectionist instincts out of a U.S. Congress that takes Canada for granted.


Such a pipeline isn’t likely, but what is already happening is energy-hungry China buying Canadian resource producers directly. This fall, PetroChina Co. Ltd. — the world’s largest company according to its stock market valuation — spent $1.9 billion to buy a 60-per-cent stake in an oilsands company. Expect more of that as China moves its massive wealth out of U.S. dollars and into strategic assets.

All of which makes Jean Chrétien’s October speech in Paris bizarre. Chrétien denounced Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s foreign policy, saying Canada has “lost a lot of ground in China” and “I think it is not good.”

It is generally regarded as unseemly for a former head of government to criticize a successor. Even Dwight Eisenhower publicly stood by John Kennedy after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, communicating his withering criticisms in private. Chrétien, too, has generally remained mum on Canadian politics. But not on this issue. It’s not the first time he’s publicly attacked Harper’s China policy, and this time he did so in a foreign country.

And he gave details; he claims he was once told by a Chinese leader that Canada was their “best friend” (the implication being that’s no longer the case). And he boasted that in the first three years he was prime minister, he met with the Chinese president “eight or nine times.”

Some of Chrétien’s observations are true. It’s unlikely that, in an intimate moment, the Chinese dictator would whisper to Harper that he is their best friend. And Harper is unlikely to make a quarterly pilgrimage to Beijing. On the other hand, Chrétien was unable to visit Alberta that frequently either, so it’s a saw-off.

But are the personal expressions of affect-ion that Chrétien received, and his ability to get meetings with Chinese bosses, truly measures of Canada’s national interest? Or are they merely the measure of Chrétien’s own desire for affirmation from the world’s most brutal regime — the little guy from Shawinigan trying to prove he’s not small-time anymore?

Chrétien pointed out that China has blazed ahead with African relations, something that Canada would do well to emulate. That’s half true; China is on the march in Africa, especially in Sudan. Chinese engineers built and maintain the oilfields there, and China buys more than half of Sudan’s oil exports. And China has become Sudan’s most important arms dealer, too, helping it perpetrate its genocide in Darfur more efficiently. And when the subject of sanctions comes up at the United Nations, China is there with its veto to protect its African protégé.

What is the source of Chrétien’s sinophilia? Since when did liberals concede the cause of international human rights to conservatives? Let us grant, out of politeness, that Chrétien’s foreign policy as prime minister was not influenced by the fact that his son-in-law is André Desmarais, president of Power Corp. of Canada, a multi-billion dollar company with massive real estate, railway, and power projects in China. But in countries with a more robust press than Canada, it would have been a scandal that Chrétien travelled to China to lobby for Power Corp. less than two months after stepping down as PM.

Since then, Chrétien has made a lot of money off his best friends in Beijing. Just this summer, Ivanhoe Energy Inc. appointed Chrétien as its senior adviser on China. So did SouthGobi Energy Resources Ltd. And he recently signed on with a company looking to build a casino in one of China’s satellites, Vietnam.

It is illegal for a former PM to lobby the Canadian government within five years of holding office. But it’s not illegal for a former PM to lobby the Chinese government within five weeks of holding office. But it is unseemly that the former prime minister who was so silent on China’s human rights abuses moved so quickly into working with those same abusers. The China-Tibet railway is perhaps the most ethically challenged public works project in the world. Is it not embarrassing to Canadians that it’s being built by Power Corp., fronted by Chrétien?

Oh, let Chrétien and his family make their money. But next time he gives a speech condemning Canada for our new approach to China, make sure you ask if he’s speaking as a former PM, or as a current lobbyist — or if he even knows the difference.

Ezra Levant is a Calgary lawyer and author. He can be reached at [email protected]

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